Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Theatre Review: Common

It all started to go wrong with a salad.

Specifically, the ‘seasonal salad with halloumi’ at the National Theatre’s Kitchen restaurant which, essentially, was a big bowl of cold asparagus, courgette and broccoli with the most pathetic amount of halloumi plonked on top. And a shit tonne of coriander for some reason. This alleged salad made me angry, as an inadequate amount of halloumi in my meal is wont to do. It was bland, it was boring and the lack of halloumi made it impossible for me to understand.

Which made it the perfect accompaniment to the play I was at the NT to see: the bland, boring and utterly incomprehensible Common. It was, in fact, Common in salad form.

Common, which has already been universally panned but I’m a fan of kicking productions that deserve it whether they’re down or not, purports to tell some kind of story about the Acts of Enclosure and the effect of this on a small rural community and its motley assortment inhabitants, human and corvine. However, how anyone can tell what story it’s telling is beyond me. Common is perhaps the worst written play I have ever seen. It is certainly the most bizarrely impenetrable. I don’t really know how to describe how inexplicable the syntax and structure of the script is. It almost feels like someone has taken the script of a perfectly adequate if rather boring play, cut it up so that each word is on a separate piece of paper and then stuck it all back together whilst wearing a blindfold. Either that or it was written by someone with the grasp of the English language of Yoda from Star Wars, if Yoda’s first language was Esperanto.

You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. This play is nigh on impossible to follow at a level any deeper than the basic plot. I have no idea of the motivations of any of the characters. I have only the sketchiest understanding of their histories or who they are. I can just about explain to you what happens in the play but I can’t tell you why. I’d love to know the thought process behind this writing, because it feels to me like the sort of pretentiousness for pretentiousness’ sake that makes me even angrier than a salad with inadequate halloumi. The impact of this is terminal: no matter how good the production around this play is, it will always be a disaster. If you can’t write a play that your audience has a hope of understanding then what’s the point?

What I was able to glean of the plot and the characters didn’t do much to improve my opinion of Common. If you think a play about the Acts of Enclosure sounds dull that’s because, guess what, it is. The attempts to enliven it with alleged cliffhangers of the sort that end Act One fail because said cliffhanger is so cheap and dishonest that it is allowed to hang for all of a second before being resolved in the most unimaginative way. The characters all seem terribly unpleasant, or annoying, and I cared about what happened to literally none of them except when occasionally some of them died and I was happy because it meant that the play must surely be slightly nearer the end. Not even the animatronic crow elicited my sympathy, mostly because it was embarrassingly unrealistic.

That any production of this play is by definition irredeemable is a fact, but that’s not to say that this production doesn’t have a good go at disproving it. It has a great cast, god knows how, who do their best with the material at their disposal: Anne-Marie Duff is a charismatic lead, Tim McMullan (always great) an enjoyable foil for her whilst Cush Jumbo and John Dagleish bring some much needed warmth and heart. But it’s irrelevant given the script they have to work with.

The production values are high too. The design is fantastically atmospheric; the music is great, the use of unusual instruments and sounds making for an engaging live soundtrack and my favourite thing about the whole production, the lighting and use of shadow is ballsy and striking and the projection, especially when used to show weather, is really strong. It’s  too long (despite having had over half an hour shaved off it since it opened, I can’t even imagine the tedium of sitting through the original) but there’s otherwise not much to technically fault here. Except the stinker of a play.

It’s baffling to me that anyone at the NT thought that staging this play was a good idea. Staging it in the huge and cavernous Olivier seems particularly stupid (especially when the blockbuster Angels in America has sold out its entire run in the smaller Lyttelton at the same time). When I went, on a Friday evening, the Olivier was emptier than I’ve ever seen it with less than half of the seats filled. The money the NT must be losing here is, frankly, deserved. Perhaps that’s why they clearly can’t afford enough halloumi for their salads.

Common plays in the Olivier at the NT until August 5th. There are plenty of tickets available.


  1. I agree with your sentiments! We left at half time, feeling that we'd rather spend the next hour and a half doing something else...

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